The Reader’s Imagination: Your Playground

When I was a kid, I really liked parks and playgrounds. I enjoyed the physical challenge of swinging on the monkey bars or climbing to impossible heights before jumping to my near-certain doom. But, believe it or not, I never died, and now I’m here writing this article for readers who will (hopefully) appreciate my analogy.

You see, a great deal of the craft of writing is being able to say the right thing at the right time in the right way. Putting your thoughts on paper in an interesting and engaging way is a task that challenges many young writers. It’s tiring and difficult, but it must be done.

But as there are tryhards in any discipline, there are tryhards in writing. Some people are just a little too intent on every little detail being perfect. They want the reader to be thinking only what the writer wants them to think. The writer has an idea so great that they have to obsess over their descriptions and use as many colorful words as possible.

While I give you ten out of ten points for hard work, you’ve got the wrong goal. Let’s be honest: if all the reader was allowed to think was that which the author writes, then you’d be left with a long, boring novel and a lot of reading to do. The human mind is just so vast: even while the reader reads, he or she is also thinking. The mind–and imagination–never goes dormant. What if you could tap into some of that creativity for yourself, eh?

While I agree that most of the ideas in the reader’s head should be introduced and described by the author, there’s a far more advanced (and potent) technique used to convey ideas. This involves “pirating” some of the reader’s imagination for your own intents and purposes (or intensive purposes?).

First off: we know that the reader’s mind and imagination are still working when they read a book. In fact, as long as the reader is interested, accessing the reader’s imagination is no tougher than plugging an ethernet cord into a computer (what is this now, a science fiction movie?). If I was honest, a more accurate analogy would be opening a safe: you just have to find the right combination of words and phrases to get the desired result. Fortunately, with luck, this should be easier than cracking open a safe.

Time for an example. Have you ever played the game where the reader has to finish…?

What? Finish what? It shouldn’t be too hard of a guess, given the non-subtlety of the medium. Since I left that sentence open-ended, your imagination went to fill in the blank. Perhaps “…the writer’s sentences” wasn’t the first thing that came to mind (and no, I would never let you finish my sandwiches), but that’s okay. It’s still along the lines of “finishing” something.

Think of it like this: the flow of the story is the direction you’re pointed. The power of imagination is the fuel for your car. Now, if you find yourself (the writer) constantly having to stop and get more gas, your story will get very expensive indeed (not to mention the reader’s boredom at the holdups). However: what if you knew of a near-infinite well of gas that you could use to power your car, and all you needed to do was go and take it?

The imagination thrives on half-things. The imagination is more like an architect than a creator. It uses lumber and metal, not dust. It saves you a lot of trouble if you come across a half-built house that nobody cares about than if you have to construct a whole house from nothing.

So, in order to stimulate the reader’s imagination, you actually have to leave a thing or two out. Let’s go back to the long description: creatively speaking, what could you say about this character that lets the reader get a mental image? Well, you’re going to want to relate it to something: hopefully something within the reader’s memory.

Now, you’re not going to want to directly associate this character with batman, but how do you tell the reader that this character is his medieval counterpart? Get the reader to imagine something. See if you can condense it down into a few words, leaving just a little for the reader to chew on.

Some people like to use words that invoke more than one image. Where “strong” just refers to strength, words like behemothic and herculean are like two sides of the same coin. Same thing with lean and sinewy. “A monster of a man.” Is the man a monster, or like a monster? Is he as big as one, or as cruel as one? As dumb as one? All three? Perhaps you supplement this with the fact that he has an “easy” smile and a relaxed stance. Images begin to form in one’s mind.

Get used to using words that don’t have exact meanings. What exactly do I mean when I say “he has an easy smile”? I still don’t know. I think it has something to do with friendliness, but it’s very vague overall. However, it sparks the reader’s imagination, gets them to work for you. Never underestimate this tactic.

Good luck, and happy writing!

Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Until then, writers!


Published by Van Ghalta

A cold, dark, mysterious character who purposefully wrote a story so that he could fit into it...A story where he himself WRITES stories, practices martial arts, blogs, plays airsoft, collects MTG trading cards, plays outdated video games, and writes weird, third-person bios for himself...

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